Jewish volunteers help with upkeep of AIDS grove

It was a chilly, misty morning Sunday, Aug. 5 in the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. A huddle of volunteers dressed in jeans and sneakers shivered as they clutched hot cups of coffee, trying to wake up for the muddy work ahead of them.

Soon, the 40 or so volunteers of all ages were on their hands and knees yanking weeds from the ground.

Jewish Family and Children’s Services has sponsored annual Sunday workdays since 1996 when the 7 1/2 acres of flowers, grass and trees became a national memorial. Volunteers weed, mulch and plant in the morning and attend, a healing circle in the Circle of Friends area afterward. Regular grove workdays are held every third Saturday between March and October, but the Sunday workday allows more Jews to participate.

“It’s been a delight,” said 72-year-old Barbara Spack, who had never attended a grove workday before. Spack’s grandniece, Hilary Jacobsen, a Kohn Summer Intern through Jewish Vocational Services, coordinated the event.

After weeding for two hours, Spack discovered, to her surprise, a cluster of ferns that had been hidden in the grove. “We freed the ferns!” she said with a broad smile.

The grove was founded in 1988 by a group of Bay Area residents who decided to clean up a portion of the park and dedicate it as a memorial to those whose lives were touched by AIDS. At the time, the AIDS crisis was devastating the gay community. Several of those founders were Jews, including Alice Russell of the Levi Strauss family, said Jon Zimman, the grove’s treasurer and a long-time member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a gay and lesbian synagogue in San Francisco.

The grove was founded as a place for “hope, remembrance and renewal,” said Zimman. Today the picturesque sprawl of land includes gardens, benches, walking paths and rocks inscribed with the names of loved ones who have died.

JFCS has a long history of AIDS support — it was the first national Jewish organization to respond to the AIDS crisis in 1987, providing social and volunteer services to individuals afflicted with the illness.

Zimman said about 10,000 people have died from AIDS in the United States and more than 1 million are diagnosed with HIV. Though it’s unclear how many of those people are Jews, Zimman, whose first partner died from AIDS in 1987, said AIDS is still a concern in the Jewish community.

Maya Kesselman, 17, the daughter of Rachel Kesselman, JFCS’s director of volunteer services, has attended the Jewish workdays at the grove since she was 6.

She remembers years ago when the grove was much less developed. “It was exciting to think I created something here.” she says.

Volunteers came from JFCS, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the LGBT Alliance of the San Francisco Jewish Federation and the Kohn Internship Program.

Rachel Kesselman said 20 young teenagers from Marin are scheduled to volunteer in the grove Thursday, Aug. 9, as part of JFCS’s community service camp.

Rabbi Jon Sommers, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, came from the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center to volunteer and lead the healing service. In the center of the Circle of Friends sat a small basket of flowers, surrounded by hundreds of names of people lost to the epidemic.

Alex Ingersoll, a member of Sha’ar Zahav since 1982, coordinated volunteers from the synagogue. He compared the unique light and fragrant air in the grove to Jerusalem.

“It is definitely a spiritual space,” he said.

Ingersoll has friends whose names are engraved on the grove’s rocks or ground. “[I] would rather clean up a grove than go to funerals,” he said.